Along the southern shores of Lake Michigan there lies 15 miles of pristine wilderness among the remnants of a once vast industrial network. Through the towering branches of critically endangered Black Oak Savannah gently perched atop the dunes, grey pillars of steel mills, power plants, and oil refineries, relinquish their puffy white exhaust into the azure sky. A struggle ensues- a legion of highly invasive species threatens the existence of an array of sensitive flora. Through bog, fen, marsh, forest, savannah, prairie, and omnipresent dunes, a ragtag and dedicated group endeavor to restore balance to a fragile ecosystem.
As Centennial Volunteer Ambassadors at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for the National Park Service, Americorps and the Student Conservation Association, the early summer consisted of rising early to meet at the resource management station in headquarters. We descended upon the field with a backpack full of herbicide, spraying or cutting down any invasive plants we could find. Musk thistle, Mullein, Cattail, Phragmites, Sweet Clover, Oriental Bittersweet, Tree of Heaven, Black Locust, Honeysuckle, Canadian Thistle, and Spotted Knapweed just to name a few of the over 100 invasive plants here.
Working with Wetlands Restoration which consists of teams of NPS scientists, another SCA crew and a crew from Wiscorps meant strapping on snowshoes and navigating a monolithic expanse of invasive hybrid Cattail in the heart of Cowles Bog. Stomping down a path through the Cattail on a bed of decaying plant material in the marsh feels much like walking on a water bed- except that your snowshoe can burst though at any moment and pull you in up to your waist. We methodically spray along these paths in a grid pattern removing the Cattail and then planting native species that are propagated in seed nurseries at HQ. This gave us a solid foundation for orchestrating a slew of stewardship projects for volunteers to assist us with.
One of the many highlights of July was working with over 70 high school students from inner city Chicago with the Shedd Aquarium. Shortly after dawn we met at a 50 acre section of partially restored Cowles Bog. By the end of the day we had planted over 2000 native plants which were meticulously grown here in the park. We also cleared out 300 yards of berm protecting the bog from encroaching invasives. With this work and bi-weekly stewardship projects with volunteers from the public and private sector we have been slowly freeing the native Indianan flora from the grip of invasive species throughout the lakeshore.
One calm July afternoon while working in the Wetlands Restoration office a call came in over the radio. Someone was in need of rescue. As official members of the Fox & Raptor crew we went out behind the the sprawl of buildings at headquarters to a pair of dumpsters. Peering inside we could see two large raccoon’s in need of our assistance. They were able to climb in but not out so we lowered a long plank of wood into the pungent confines of the dumpster and left them to it.
We’ve had a busy three months here at INDU. After receiving kayak rescue and lake safety training we have been helping the interpretive staff at the Douglas Center in Gary with their Water Safety and Fun program. Teaching park goers how to safely kayak, paddle board, and snorkel. It has helped us prepare for the 5 weeks of programming with Wilderness Inquiry in Northwest Indiana soon where we will blend interpretive canoeing with stewardship and resource management projects for local school kids.
We’ve been doing community outreach events as often as possible. On the fourth of July we set up contact station at the busiest beach with information on all there is to see and do in the park, invasive species, and volunteer events/opportunities. We’ve done similar outreach events at three local county fairs and the Gary air show. We also helped organize a large volunteer appreciation dinner to thank the all the many volunteers who work here across many different divisions. Our supervisor was happy to announce that Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore won the award from Midwest Region for the most volunteer hours last year. We have some big shoes to fill.
Recently work has begun to conduct a comprehensive 50 mile GPS trail survey through the park. We’ve been analyzing all interpretive media that we come across with a fresh perspective to see whats helpful and whats disorientating to visitors. In conjunction with this survey we’ve been attempting to build up a Site and Trail Corps program that will soon begin to meet weekly and do a group hike incorporated with interpretive programming. We are also excited about some amazing new technology that we are taking advantage of to prevent the spread of invasive species. The Great Lakes Early Detection Network or GLEDN has an iPhone app that our corps members can use to identify and report invasive plants, animals, insects, and pathogens in the park. The data is then sent to Resource Management for further investigation.
One of our newest projects has been developing a brand new volunteer program at one of the newest National Park Units in the country: Pullman National Monument. They are just starting to get up and running and we’ve been hard at work creating volunteer job descriptions, job hazard analyses, ordering uniforms, and helping create a training program which will soon be implemented.
We’re also stoked to begin developing a spring internship for biology students at Mnoke Prairie. This mesic prairie, through grant funding over the last 15 years, has been restored to nearly pristine condition. Unfortunately the funding has dried up and volunteers are desperately needed to continue the work of many dedicated biologists. Through coordination with The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative we will soon reach out to local universities to develop a spring service-learning internship for biology majors. They will learn about native seed propagation, plant identification, wildfire, and invasive species removal while being exposed to an exciting career field.
Out beyond the edges of civilization and industry there still remains an untamed wilderness in the heart of Northwest Indiana. Through the tall oak trees and marram grasses that are scattered atop the shifting sands of monstrous dunes, the lights of a large city can be seen in the vast distance reflecting off the cool waters of Lake Michigan; it’s Chicago. The people who inhabit its vast metropolis are in desperate need of a connection with an ancient and often lost realm: the natural world. Here it still endures despite the grey columns that now also twinkle and flash in the night faintly illuminating the steam and smoke rising towards the great infinite beyond. Here they can come and find over 1100 flowering plant species, many beaches with natural sand, and the scars of retreating glaciers: The Indiana Dunes.
Hunter Moseley and Grant Smith are Centennial Volunteer Ambassadors with the National Park Service, Student Conservation Association and Americorps at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.